Individual Electoral Registration Bill Second Reading Speech

I want to use the opportunity this afternoon to repeat the concerns that I first raised in January in an Opposition day debate on the subject.

First, I am concerned that, although the proposals have a worthy goal, we are ignoring the difficulties posed by the dual aims of ensuring the highest number of registrations on the electoral roll, while at the same time solving the problem of electoral fraud. Secondly, and especially given the experience of an 11% drop in electoral registration in Northern Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the introduction of IER, I am concerned that the proposals are being introduced at the same time as other major changes, such as the equalisation of constituency sizes, based on the electoral roll. There is surely consensus that the preferred outcome is that all adults who should be registered on the electoral roll are registered, and that they participate in elections. Everybody should be on the electoral roll and have the opportunity to cast their vote.

The principle of individual electoral registration is positive, in that electors should take upon themselves the responsibility to register to vote in their own right, rather than its being done under the aegis of a household. All relevant people should be willing and able to register, and have the same opportunity to do so. However, there may be a disconnect between the equality of opportunity to register, where all relevant people may do so, and the equality of outcome, where all relevant people do so.

The Electoral Commission reported in December 2010 that 6 million people were not registered across the UK, with register completion rates of between 85% to 87%. It is unclear to me how IER, which creates a greater barrier to registration, will ensure that as many people as possible are on the electoral roll. While accepting that it is always a worry, the number of cases of electoral fraud that have been uncovered are minimal compared with the need to get those 6 million people on to the electoral register. We therefore welcome the decision to drop the idea of voluntary registration, which was raised in the White Paper, and to maintain the civic duty.

Electoral registration has a greater relevance than ever following the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which will create constituencies that are designed to have a number of voters within 5% of a UK constituency mean, predicated on the number of electors on the electoral roll, rather than the actual adult population.

Many people are particularly concerned about registration among certain socio-economic and age groups, including more transient populations, such as young people, who move house frequently, and those who are already disconnected from civic society, and may not make the effort to register.

When IER was first introduced in the north of Ireland, the number on the roll dropped initially by 11% and has only gradually been rebuilt over time, in part, one might say, because of the strong community links that exist in the Six Counties. We must avoid that drop in registration occurring in the first place.

The Government have already announced a process of data-matching pilots and we shall watch their progress keenly. We welcome the moving of the autumn 2013

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canvass back to spring 2014 to prevent significant deterioration of the registers before the introduction of IER, although that will presumably mean an 18-month gap and deterioration in the registers from this year’s canvass until spring 2014. How will that affect EROs and preparation of registers for the European elections of June 2014, and the Scottish independence referendum, which is due to be held later that year?

The effects of the Bill moved a little closer to home for me this week, with the publication of a Green Paper on future electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales by the Secretary of State for Wales. I do not intend to discuss that very interesting Green Paper in detail during the debate, but in short the Secretary of State highlighted options for constituency size in Wales, based on the same principle as that for equalisation of numbers on the electoral roll for Westminster constituencies: whether we have 30 or 40 Assembly constituency seats. That means that the concerns I have raised about the effect of electoral registration matter regardless. Members will know that during the progress of that 2011 Act, I consistently criticised the principle of ignoring community, historical and geographical links in the formation of new constituencies. Non-registration therefore becomes crucial in both Assembly and Westminster elections. Not only is a non-registered person unable to vote and disfranchised, but the population of the constituency decreases, because those “non-people” are not counted.

Of similar importance is the length of time for which registration is carried forward under IER as we move to the new system. The Minister can correct me if I have misunderstood this, but it is generally considered that most people who are moved forward will be registered in 2015 for the Westminster elections, but will not be carried forward for a second year, which would take us up to the National Assembly for Wales elections in 2016. The Electoral Commission makes specific reference to those with postal or proxy votes and the possibility of adverse impacts on participation after the introduction of IER. It will be a tragedy if, owing to administrative changes, electors in Wales find themselves unable to vote in their national elections. I hope that, in his winding-up speech, the Minister outlines how he will prevent that nightmare scenario.

Clause 14 repeals section 16 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, which is on holding community council elections in Wales. Will the Minister confirm the process by which that decision was reached in respect of Wales, and whether the power to determine election dates for such elections lies with the UK Government or the Welsh Government?

I conclude by repeating my key argument. The main aim of electoral registration is to ensure the completion and accuracy of the register. With so much change taking in electoral administration as a result of the 2011 Act, I am concerned that we might inadvertently end up disfranchising electors and skewing the electoral system.

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